The term microfibril angle (MFA) in wood science refers to the angle between the direction of the helical windings of cellulose microfibrils in the secondary cell wall of fibres and tracheids and the long axis of cell. Technologically, it is usually applied to the orientation of cellulose microfibrils in the S2 layer that makes up the greatest proportion of the wall thickness, since it is this which most affects the physical properties of wood. This review describes the organisation of the cellulose component of the secondary wall of fibres and tracheids and the various methods that have been used for the measurement of MFA. It considers the variation of MFA within the tree and the biological reason for the large differences found between juvenile (or core) wood and mature (or outer) wood. The ability of the tree to vary MFA in response to environmental stress, particularly in reaction wood, is also described.
Differences in MFA have a profound effect on the properties of wood, in particular its stiffness. The large MFA in juvenile wood confers low stiffness and gives the sapling the flexibility it needs to survive high winds without breaking. It also means, however, that timber containing a high proportion of juvenile wood is unsuitable for use as high-grade structural timber. This fact has taken on increasing importance in view of the trend in forestry towards short rotation cropping of fast grown species. These trees at harvest may contain 50% or more of timber with low stiffness and therefore, low economic value. Although they are presently grown mainly for pulp, pressure for increased timber production means that ways will be sought to improve the quality of their timber by reducing juvenile wood MFA.
The mechanism by which the orientation of microfibril deposition is controlled is still a matter of debate. However, the application of molecular techniques is likely to enable modification of this process. The extent to which these techniques should be used to improve timber quality by reducing MFA in juvenile wood is, however, uncertain, since care must be taken to avoid compromising the safety of the tree.
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